Australian Youth Orchestra: Ngapa William Cooper

AYO-Sharon-Grigoryan-photo-by-Peter-HislopVisits to Canberra by the Australian Youth Orchestra are always highly anticipated events, both for the opportunities they provide to hear outstanding young emerging musicians and for the stimulating repertoire choices.

The repertoire for this year’s program was particularly exciting, consisting of three new works by one of country’s most celebrated composers, Nigel Westlake, who would conduct all of his compositions.

Adding to the excitement was the fact that one of these works was the world premiere of a major symphonic work, Ngapa William Cooper, which celebrates a significant First Nation’s activist and incorporates his Yorta Yorta language to be performed by his great, great, great granddaughter, Dr Lou Bennett AM.

Ngapa William Cooper is the result of collaboration between composer Nigel Westlake, singer-songwriter Lior, and performer and academic Dr Lou Bennett AM. A chamber version of this work had been premiered at the 2023 Adelaide Festival.

The Australian Youth Orchestra subsequently commissioned Westlake to develop the work as an orchestral suite for full symphony orchestra; along with two other of his works, The Glass Soldier and Beneath the Waves. All three would be performed at this concert.

Ngapa William Cooper campaigned tirelessly for Aboriginal representation in Parliament. He founded the Australian Aborigines’ League in Melbourne and in 1938 famously led its members on a march to the German Consulate to deliver a formal petition condemning the persecution of Germany’s Jews and calling for it to end.

Although the protesters were denied entry by the Nazi German consul, who refused to receive their petition, Cooper continued to fight for equal rights for Aboriginal people and to stand in solidarity with the Jewish.

Composed in seven sections, the first being an unaccompanied Exile/Call to Ancestors performed by Lior and Lou Bennett, the next six sections of Ngapa William Cooper, drew on the full power of the 87 piece orchestra to create a series of individual dramatic sections entitled The Noise, The Silence, Yakapna-Nuk, The Meeting, The Protest, and finally, At the End Of My Days.

For each section, Westlake exercised the skills of the orchestra’s talented young emerging instrumentalists with his talent with creating arresting orchestrations, sometimes utilising unusual instruments, even bunches of gum leaves at some points, to create powerful auditory images. .

The young musicians responded brilliantly to his concise conducting, especially during the Stravinsky-like complexities of The Protest section where the inconsistent sound balance was finally corrected allowing the audience to relish the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Lior and Bennett.

Both singers used microphones because each of the six sections contained evocative explanatory lyrics which were beautifully performed by Lior and Lou Bennett singing in both English and Yorta Yorta. Disappointingly however, during the early sections, the vocalists had to battle to be heard above the poor sound-mix, sending the audience scrambling for their programs in order to follow the lyrics.

Despite this blemish however the audience was fully aware that it was experiencing a remarkable performance of an epic work which it rewarded it with a vociferous standing ovation.

Preceding Ngapa William Cooper, the orchestra offered two other Westlake compositions, both also arranged and conducted by the composer himself.

The first, The Glass Soldier, was a suite in four movements utilising music originally written for Hannie Rayson’s play of the same name. This beautiful work, commemorated the life and exploits of a young soldier, N.H.Ferguson, who lost his sight as a result of injuries received during the First World War.

Lushly orchestrated, this warmly lyrical, delightfully textured score was given a superb performance by the orchestra, during which a dramatic, moving trumpet solo by Arkie Moore drew spontaneous applause from the appreciative audience.

Westlake’s other work was a gorgeous suite for cello and orchestra, Beneath the Waves,  especially commissioned from Westlake by the Australian Youth Orchestra to showcase the virtuosic talents of cellist Sharon Grigoryan.

Westlake based this suite on music originally composed for the film Blueback. His deep love of the ocean, inherited from his fisherman father, was immediately obvious in the melodic swirls of music that effectively conjured up the rise and fall and changing moods of the sea.

Grigoryan, spot-lit on a small rostrum in front of the orchestra, led the orchestra in a luminous performance of this suite, which Westlake conducted with such impressive attention to detail and phrasing that it was possible to become fascinated by the accuracy of the bowing of the string section while entranced by the warmth of tone elicited from her cello by Grigoryan, or captivated by an extraordinary section during which Grigoryan mimicked the call of whales with her instrument.

Australian Youth Orchestra: Ngapa William Cooper
Llewellyn Hall, William Herbert Place, Acton (Canberra)
Performance: Sunday 9 July 2023

Image: Sharon Grigoryan – photo by Peter Hislop

Review: Bill Stephens OAM